Thursday, April 20, 2006

One Grace or Several?

There is an interesting post at Pontifications concerning the many flavors and varieties of Catholic grace. Given my background in the Lutheran tradition (where "grace" is simply grace), I've always been a bit bewildered by the abundance of graces that are found in Catholic theology (prevenient grace, justifying grace, created grace, uncreated grace, and so on). The Pontifications post has cleared up some of my confusion, although I must admit that my newfound understanding of the Catholic position has not made it any more palatable. Quite the contrary. Take, for instance, this passage on created and uncreated grace:
The primary and foundational meaning of grace within Catholic doctrine is uncreated grace: in infinite love God gives himself to human beings and comes to dwell within them. This gift of uncreated grace, however, requires the transformation of the soul. The finite human being must be made capable of receiving the indwelling presence of the infinite Creator. By grace our nature must be elevated and brought into a new supernatural life; by grace we must be endowed with a capacity that we do not presently possess—the capacity to participate in the divine life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This new capacity is created grace. “Created grace,” Journet explains, “is a reality, a quality, a light that enables the soul to receive worthily the indwelling of the three divine Persons” (p. 7). Moreover, this quality is not temporary or occasional but is permanent or habitual: it is “an endowment we possess continuously and which is the source in us of activity. The divine action, when it takes hold of me—say that I am in the state of sin—and if I open myself to it, places me in the state of grace, that is to say in a stable condition of grace.

I find this passage to be a useful reminder of the enormous distance that still exists between the Catholic and Lutheran positions on justification. Indeed, it makes it abundantly clear that when Lutherans and Catholics use the word "grace", they are talking about two totally different things! From the Catholic perspective, grace is a "capacity" and a "reality" that humans possess within themselves. Justification is then viewed as the last step in the long process of sanctification:
To be justified is to have received sanctifying grace is to be possessed by the love of God is to be indwelt by the Holy Trinity is. Or in Journet’s words: “[Justification] is the moment when, the sequence of graces being unbroken, all at once the flower gives its fruit; the love of God invading the soul sets it on the plane of grace and charity, sanctifies it interiorly, and there results the indwelling of the Trinity”

Thus, in the act of justification, God justifies the already justified (akin perhaps to the conferral of a diploma after four years of college). Of course, Catholics would argue that they avoid Pelagianism because grace is required for each step in the transition from sinner to sanctified believer. However, it seems to me that the Pontifications post is clearly advocating in favor of a synergism whereby the human being also contributes to his/her salvation:
In the mystery of grace we cooperate with God in the process of sanctification, bearing fruit unto eternal life. Our good acts are wholly from God as first cause and wholly from man as secondary cause. “When God crowns our merits,” St Augustine writes, “he crowns his own gifts.” What is crucial to remember is that our free acts of faith and love are not autonomous: they are acts enveloped and penetrated by divine grace within a state of grace, leading us to our final and supreme end in Christ. God offers us grace sufficient to freely cooperate with him in a life of discipleship, and in faithfulness to his promises, he rewards our faith with the fullness of eternal salvation. He rewards us with that which he has already given us.

Over and against the Catholic position, Luther held that grace and righteousness is never something that we possess; it is always extrinsic to our being, an alien righteousness. There is nothing within ourselves that can contribute to our salvation, nothing of ours that we can point to and say "we are justified." We are simul iustus et peccator - a formulation that the Catholic Church has never understood, much less accepted.

In my opinion, these fundamental differences concerning the nature of grace make a mockery of the so-called consensus proclaimed in the Joint Declaration. Either the participants of such ecumenical discussions are simply talking past each other (by understanding the same word to mean very different things), or they are being dishonest about the extent of their progress. Regardless, in this age of knee-jerk ecumenism, it is imperative for both sides remain clear-headed about the chasm that still (tragically) divides our two churches.


Pontificator said...

Thank you, Thomas, for your response to my piece. A couple of thoughts:

First, over the years I have read more than a fair bit of Luther and Lutherans on justification. With regards to Luther, I have come to the conclusion that he is very difficult to pin down exactly what he believed about justification and his views appeared to have changed over time. Consider, e.g., the Luther constructed by the Finnish scholars. Nailing down the "Lutheran" position, as stated by the confessions, is much easier, and of course it is the confessions that are authoritative for Lutheranism, not Luther himself.

Second, I may not have been as clear in my article as I should have been about the distinction between uncreated and created grace, so I've made a couple of minor changes to the piece. The self-donation of God to the baptized is, of course, the over-riding reality and wonder. The Catholic Church here simply follows the ancient tradition, shared by both West and East, that God truly takes the redeemed into his divine life, that he truly comes to indwell them, that he truly makes them participators in his divine nature, and in mystery he does this without obliterating the creator/creature distinction.

Reflecting on this reality, Western theologians eventually inferred that man's participation in the divine nature required God to give man a new created capacity--i.e., created grace.

Created grace never exists independently of uncreated grace. And it certainly is never an autonomous "thing" that an individual can point to and boast before God and man. After all, created grace is precisely a gratuitous gift that makes possible the simultaneous gift of the indwelling Holy Trinity.

You are correct that Catholicism, like Eastern Orthodoxy, follows the Church Fathers in presenting a grace-filled synergism. At this point the Catholic Church is simply being traditional. It is the monergism of Luther and Calvin that is the novelty.

Pontificator said...

It might also be noted that most of Protestantism has never really understood or significantly employed Luther's simul iustus et peccator either. It has no place, for example, in Anglican reflection on justification (see Richard Hooker, e.g.), in which justification is grounded upon our ontologically prior union with God. The same, I think, might also be said of Calvin.

Pontificator said...

It might also be noted that most of Protestantism has never really understood or significantly employed Luther's simul iustus et peccator either. It has no place, for example, in Anglican reflection on justification (see Richard Hooker, e.g.), in which justification is grounded upon our ontologically prior union with God. The same, I think, might also be said of Calvin.

Thomas Adams said...

Pontificator - Thank you for your reply, and for your clarifications regarding created and uncreated grace. I fully appreciate that Catholic theology has always given priority to uncreated grace over created grace. However, I can't shake the suspicion that, at the end of the day, it is really created grace that is decisive for one's salvation. This is because the “capacity” of created grace is the observable property of the human who is under the influence of uncreated grace, which is invisible in itself. Thus, the presence of uncreated grace in a person’s life is only inferred by its effects (i.e., the existence of created grace). So the anxious sinner is forced to look at themselves in order to determine whether or not they’re justified. Conversely, Luther (and Lutherans) have always counseled sinners to look away from themselves, towards God and Christ, for their salvation.

You mention the argument of the Finnish Lutherans that Luther himself believed in the “indwelling” of Christ in the believer. It’s been a few years since I’ve read Union With Christ, but I clearly remember that it failed to convince me. But please give me a little time to review my notes, and I will write another post about the Finns.

I’ve also read your recent post concerning created grace by Aidan Nichols. While I found it to be a lucid description of the Catholic varieties of graces, I’m still convinced that it is incompatible with the whole of the Lutheran tradition. Indeed, I’m afraid that I agree with Eberhard Jüngel when he writes that “this distinction between uncreated and created grace is unacceptable. [The RC Church] should have never even have ventured onto the path of making a distinction and thus considering the possibility of created grace. It contradicts the idea of a gracious God for whom grace is an integral part of the self-definition of his own being, so that it cannot even be separated from him as being his creation.”

One final question: You say that the Catholic Church presents a synergistic conception of salvation, but that it also rejects semi-Pelagianism. How is this possible? Aren’t synergism and semi-Pelagianism really the same thing?

Pontificator said...

Hi, Thomas. I only have a moment before I take off for the airport. Grace-enabled synergism (as taught by Catholicism, Orthodoxy, the Church Father (including Augustine) is different from semi-Pelagianism.

Thomas Adams said...

Pontificator - Best wishes for a safe trip. My prayers are with you and your family during this rough time. Peace, Thomas

Chris Jones said...


You ask: Aren’t synergism and semi-Pelagianism really the same thing?

Not at all. Although the term "semi-Pelagianism" is often used these days rather loosely as a vague pejorative against "synergism", in actuality it is a very specific error about the relationship between grace and human free will. In semi-Pelagianism, human free will comes first, and then is helped by grace.

"Semi-Pelagian" has a very specific meaning, historically. It refers to those who attempted to "split the difference" between St Augustine and his Pelagian opponents. The semi-Pelagians agreed with Pelagius that free will in fallen man was not entirely dead in spiritual matters. They taught that fallen man could begin to seek God apart from grace. But they agreed with St Augustine that grace was absolutely necessary for salvation. So they taught that although fallen man can begin to seek salvation apart from grace, he cannot accomplish salvation without grace. Semi-pelagianism was condemned by a Church council at Orange (in southern France) in AD 529.

So the issue with semi-Pelagianism is not whether or not regenerate man can cooperate with grace; it is whether unregenerate man can "make the first move" towards salvation. The Council of Orange taught that, without grace, fallen man can never make the first move. The initiative always comes from God. Apart from grace we are indeed "spiritually dead", so it is always by grace that we can have faith, trust God, or respond to Him in any way. (That, by the way, is the meaning of "prevenient grace". "Prevenient" simply means "that which comes before", so prevenient grace is that grace which comes to us before we do anything, which restores our spiritual sight and enables us to have faith.)

Not all forms of synergism are semi-Pelagian. Once we are born again, by grace, we are enabled to cooperate. That "post-regeneration" synergism, which is made possible by grace, is not semi-Pelagian at all, nor is it un-Lutheran. See the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord, II.65: as soon as the Holy Ghost, as has been said, through the Word and holy Sacraments, has begun in us this His work of regeneration and renewal, it is certain that through the power of the Holy Ghost we can and should cooperate, although still in great weakness.

It's not my intent here to defend the Roman Catholic position -- I'm an LCMS Lutheran, and I won't even claim to understand the RC position, much less agree with it. But the view that "Roman = synergism = semi-Pelagian = bad", while "Lutheran = monergism = good" is too simple and does not do justice to the confessional Lutheran view.

A blanket condemnation of all "synergism" is more Reformed than it is Lutheran.

Thomas Adams said...

Chris -- Thanks for your detailed explanation of the difference between Semi-Pelagianism and synergism. I agree that Lutheranism can allow a certain degree of synergism when it comes to sanctification, but that such cooperation with the Holy Spirit is always subsequent to our justification (as you point out). The Catholic position, though, is synergistic with respect to both justification and sanctification, and thus it still seems wrong to me, even if it escapes the label of Semi-Pelagian.

Josh S said...

Everything was novel once. The question isn't really whether or not you can selecta group of folks from the fifth century who can be interpreted in a way agreeing with you (this is pretty much always possible); the question is whether or not the apostles taught this. I won't argue that the Favorite Fathers of Catholicism and especially the scholastics envisioned things within the context of a grace-nature dualism; I'm simply curious as to whether or not this is what the apostles meant. I feel no impetus to simply accept Augustine's categorizations and Aquinas' inferences as correct. Likewise, all this business about transforming souls and giving them new powers and capacities is meaningless language to me; there's a whole metaphysic frontloaded into it that I really don't think I buy. Besides that, I think that a Roman Catholic discussing grace and salvation without discussing merit, purgatory, and indulgence is simply being disingenuous and misrepresenting himself as quasi-Orthodox, as those ideas are central to the basic Catholic system.

Likewise, to speak of an "Anglican reflection" is a bit silly. After the Elizabethan age, Anglicanism is practically by definition the most pluralistic of all Protestant denominations. You can pick from any non-Baptist stream of Western Christianity you like and validly claim to be genuinely Anglican.

And finally, the Lutheran Confessions themselves present variant streams of thought which, while not exactly contradictory, are also not identical. Melanchthon's "iustificatio est regeratio" is something to ponder, and Chemnitz's remarks on this phrase hardly serve to clarify anything.

Chris Jones said...


The Catholic position, though, is synergistic with respect to both justification and sanctification

As I said, I don't claim to understand the Roman Catholic position on this, so I will take your word for it. But aren't we (Lutherans) at least minimally synergistic about justification as well, in that we don't teach irresistible grace, as the Calvinists do? That is to say, given that we can refuse grace and walk away from God, isn't the passive acceptance of grace a form (albeit an absolutely minimal form) of cooperation?

How that relates to the RC position I don't know.

Chris Jones said...


all this business about transforming souls and giving them new powers and capacities is meaningless language to me

Perhaps. But it is Lutheran language as well. Immediately following the passage from the Formula that I quoted to Thomas above, we find this:

But the fact that we cooperate does not occur from our carnal natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts which the Holy Ghost has begun in us in conversion, as St. Paul expressly and earnestly exhorts that, as workers together with Him, we receive not the grace of God in vain (2 Co 6.1) ... (FC SD II.65-66).

I don't know if you perceive the same "frontloaded metaphysic" in this language that you find in the RC language. But the idea of new powers in the regenerate isn't necessarily un-Lutheran (and I think it can be seen as an aspect of the Biblical concept of being a "new creation" in Christ).

Besides that, I think that a Roman Catholic discussing grace and salvation without discussing merit, purgatory, and indulgence is simply being disingenuous and misrepresenting himself as quasi-Orthodox, as those ideas are central to the basic Catholic system.

I think this is right. It's similar to the way some RCs have embraced the "Eucharistic ecclesiology" of Affanasiev, Schmemann, and Zizioulas, and then acted as if that somehow finesses the issue of Papal supremacy.

It's the notion that "Vatican II means that we're just like the Orthodox, only better organized". Not true at all, of course.

Josh S said...

That quote from Chemnitz doesn't really speak about metaphysical change in our natural qualities. Rather, he speaks of God's doing. It is one thing to speak of God working in and through us, and it is quite another to speak of God fundamentally changing who and what we are so that we have new, inherent powers.

The problem here is this continual scholastic conclusion that God can't do what he wants until we are made inherently better--we need new ontological properties. It's in everything from Mariology to eschatology to sanctification.

In the Lutheran view, sanctification is Christ acting through us and using us to accomplish his will. It has nothing to do with changing our natures. We receive a new nature by faith, which is Christ himself through the Spirit, but it exists alongside our old one, which is not remade until we die and are resurrected in his image.

D.W. Congdon said...


I would caution you against keeping God's salvific righteousness entirely and absolutely alien to us in such a way that our natures are left unchanged. It was a mistake for Protestants to venture down the path of an "as if" righteousness. Justification must be ontologically effective so that we are not what we once were, but are still not what we will someday be. This, I believe, is what Luther captures so well with the phrase simul iustus et peccator. Justifying grace is still alien to us in the sense that it is external to us, and always remains external. Consequently, we do not receive grace, so to speak, but we are transposed to where grace may be found -- with God alone. We are taken outside ourselves (extra nos) in order to receive ourselves. And the language of "receiving ourselves" is ontological, even though a very different kind of ontology than what was operative in ancient and medieval theology.

Thomas, great post. I think what RCs and Finnish Lutherans need to ask is the following: what do you gain by advocating synergism? (And I agree wholeheartedly with Josh that just because you can find it in an early church theologian does not make it right.) What does synergism say about God and humanity theologically? RCs and many Protestants get caught up with the beautiful language of "participation in the divine life" -- which, I admit, sounds so good that I almost want to accept the theology behind it -- but at great expense.

Synergism says that God needs humanity; God is incapable of acting alone as the sovereign God who acts graciously and lovingly for the benefit of humanity. The layers of nuance in the RC position only obscure the reality: God is not perfect in a synergistic theology. And I want to be careful here. The influence of Barth and Jüngel makes me cautious when using language appropriated from metaphysical thought, so I want to define perfection here as John Webster does, as "the repleteness of [God's] life, the fullness or completeness of [God's] being, the entirety with which [God] is [Godself]. As the perfect one, God is utterly realized, lacks nothing, and is devoid of no element of [God's] own blessedness. From all eternity [God] is wholly and unceasingly fulfilled." Parenthetically, John Webster's fine essay on ecclesiology, "On Evangelical Ecclesiology," conditions much of my thought on this topic. His thesis is squarely against the language of participation, because he argues that we need to think ecclesiologically out of the doctrine of God's perfection, which renders all synergism as inadequate to the gospel.

The RC position, as articulated by pontificator, is unnecessarily complex. The whole project is built around maintaining some sort of human participation in the divine work. Thus, uncreated grace is not enough; we need created grace. But we also need to avoid semi-Pelagianism, so we add prevenient grace. Why? Not to protect the sovereignty of God but the role of humanity. At this point, I can bring virtually every letter of Paul's corpus against the RC position, because what is fundamentally missing from the RC position is the radical extent of our sinfulness and the even more radical extent and power of God's grace. Without those two poles in place, a mushy synergism is all too easily acceptable.